Pays-de-la-Loire tourist and vacation guide

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Pays-de-la-Loire is a remarkable region of fascinating towns and villages with wonderful ancient buildings, narrow streets and cobbled alleyways. It has a stunning coastline, and a wealth of restaurants serving local seafood and fine wines.

For the energetic tourists there are family walks, cycling, riding, and sailing. In fact, the Pays de la Loire has everything you could need to enjoy a wonderful vacation.

Things to do in Pays-de-la-Loire

Some of the highlights in this most attractive of regions include: the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, the Le Mans 24 hour race, the beaches of Vendée, the Loire chateaux, and a glorious hinterland.

Keep your children entertained while you enjoy yourself at the Puy du Fou Theme Park; or visit the Carolingian Palace at Mayenne.

Don’t forget the prehistoric caves at Saulges, the 11th-century city of Sainte-Suzanne, or enjoy a bit of river cruising without the crowds.

For a really relaxing day, take a boat trip in the Parc Naturel Régional Brière (La Grande Brière), a 20,000-hectare area of peatland, reed beds, floodplains, canals, lagoons and watercourses. As a natural park it’s second in importance only to the Camargue.

Visit Le Mans. It is so much more than just a venue for a motor race. It is a beautiful town and a great base from which to explore the department of Sarthe. And you simply must see the Fleche Zoo. Read our guide: Things to do in Le Mans.

Visit Laval

Along the broad sweep of the gently flowing Mayenne, which gives the département its name, the town of Laval is largely overlooked by tourists.

This is a as its riverside setting, its history and association with two of France’s most influential ‘artists’ gives it a special intrigue.

It lies south-west of Paris, east of the much larger city of Rennes, and for many visitors is simply a stop-over on the way to somewhere else.

Yet the town is both beautiful and celebrated, with a fine medieval centre of steep and narrow cobbled streets flanked by half-timbered houses (colombages) that seem to lean on one another in lifelong repose and companionship.

The Mayenne River flowing through Laval

Founded around the end of the first millennium, Laval has long been an important gateway at the crossroads between Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Maine, and, as a result has a prized architectural heritage that has earned it the sobriquet ‘Town of Art and History’.

There are two fine French castles overlooking the river. The more modern is undergoing conversion to a school for music and dance, while the older, a sturdy and magnificent building dating from the 11th century, houses a collection of artwork, including paintings by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910).

Henri Rousseau

Rousseau, the founder of the art naïf movement, and most famous for his simplistic paintings of wild animals in jungle settings, was born in Laval, in what is today the last surviving of five ancient gateways into the old town.

What makes Rousseau’s paintings so fascinating, and not a little ironic, is that he never saw the exotic animals he portrayed in their natural settings, and drew all his images from the published works of nature travellers and writers.

In the elevated and terraced park ‘La Perrine’, a boat, many metres above the river below seems out-of-place, until you realise that this is a replica of the ‘Firecrest’.

This was the boat in which the French yachtsman, Alain Gerbault, became the first person to sail single-handedly around the world in 1929. The park also contains the tomb of Rousseau, tucked away in a quiet corner.

Alfred Jarry

Laval was also the birthplace of Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), a playwright renowned today largely for his creation of the stylised figure of King Ubu (Ubu Roi), a parody of Shakespear’s Macbeth.

Jarry was the forerunner of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ and of what he called pataphysique, the ‘science of imaginary solutions’.

This branch of surrealism found homage in the most unlikely of places, not least in Paul McCartney’s song Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

Not surprisingly, when Ubu Roi was first performed, with marionettes, it caused a riot; the coarseness of the language and anarchistic overtones were too much for the perplexed audience.

Today, Jarry is celebrated, and in 2007 Laval is the focus of ‘The Year of Jarry’, featuring a series of performances of his plays and other works.

The place of Jarry’s birth still exists, but today it is a private residence and not open to the public.

But the tall, slender house in which he was given the Last Rites can be seen. It gazes across the ancient streets to an ultra-modern assembly hall and conference centre, directly opposite a grand old building which the local maire is hoping will become an internationally famous fine arts museum.

Jarry had a huge presence, and a sense of the bizarre that prompted him to have each floor of his apartment divided horizontally to create twice as many floors.

Until his death he was frequently seen walking the streets with a green umbrella – the Ubu symbol of middle-class power – dressed in cyclist’s garb and carrying two pistols.

Unknown to virtually the rest of the world, Jarry is celebrated in Laval, not least in a statue by Zadkine in the place Hardy de Lévaré, which portrays Jarry on his bicycle, composing a play.

This local man, whose tragic fondness for absinthe precipitated his end, is a bizarre and mystical character.

Henri Rousseau on the other hand is well remembered, and was nicknamed ‘Le Douanier’ by Jarry, in response to Rousseau’s occupation as a form of customs officer along the rivers of France.

The old chateau contains a reconstruction of his artist’s studio, along with a number of Rousseau’s works on loan from worldwide galleries.

Where is Pays-de-la-Loire?

The Pays-de-la-Loire region is in the north-west of France, and, as its name suggests, ranges along the valley of the Loire river.

A view of the Loire river

It has a coastline, facing out into the Atlantic, but is otherwise bordered by Brittany, Normandy, Centre and Poitou-Charentes, and embraces at total area of 32,082 sq km (12,387 sq miles).

A diverse and thriving area the Pays de la Loire is one of the original 27 regions of France. It was created in the late 20th century to serve as a zone of influence for its capital, Nantes, one of a handful of so-called “balancing metropolises” (métropoles d’équilibre).

Other examples of “artificially created” regions include Rhône-Alpes, which was created as the region for Lyon, and Midi-Pyrénées, which was created as the region for Toulouse.

Since then changes have been effected that reduced, with effect from 1st January 2016, the number of regions to thirteen. Pays de la Loire was not affected by this change.

The Pays de la Loire is among the leading regions in France in economic development, and is a diverse and thriving area, home to countless entrepreneurs and boasts an extensive rail, road and air network.

Nantes – the capital of Pays-de-la-Loire

Nantes, with a population in excess of 600,000, is the sixth largest city in France, and developed at an important point along the Loire, where the river becomes tidal. Such a coincidence has made Nantes an important focus of trade within the Loire-Atlantique.

For an authentic ‘Nantes’ evening, check out the restaurants and bars in the Ste-Croix neck of the woods. Try the local Muscadet wine; dry, but not too sharp.

Riverside view of Nantes

Nantes is a splendid destination transformed by imagination and creativity. Just 45 minutes from the Atlantic, Nantes is an envied destination, a town of art and culture. The rich cultural heritage of Nantes is an experience that is quite special.

Nantes was selected as the European Green Capital for 2013. This rewards the city for its policies on urban planning and sustainable development.

Among a number of green initiatives are the introduction of the tram, pedestrian zones, cycle hire, biodiversity, reduction of pesticide use, development of protected natural areas and water treatment.

And the greening of Nantes continues. Already, a quarter of the city’s hotel rooms are eco-certified, making Nantes the leading city in France. And hotel owners are working to educate their guests to “think green” by providing information on environmental impact.

Things to do in Nantes

The Musée des Beaux-Arts (10 rue Georges Clemanceau); the 19th-century town; the Natural History Museum (le Square Louis-Bureau, place de la Monnaie).

Château des ducs de Bretagne – Musée d’Histoire de Nantes in the heart of the city. Rarely seen, the castle is accessible and free from the battlements to the moats. Its museum on the History of Nantes with contemporary scenography appeals to all.

A key task is a visit to the Sea World Merry-go-Round and maybe a ride on the Great Elephant. The Castle of the dukes of Brittany is also not to be missed! Along the Loire River, the Isle of Nantes is a cultural melting pot, blending trendy places and seafaring.

Planète Sauvage (12½ miles SW along the D758). A brilliant safari park with over 1,500 animals roaming free.

Visit Sarthe

Taking its name from the River Sarthe, the département was created in 1790 following the French Revolution. Today it forms part of the region Pays-de-la-Loire.

Where it flows through Le Mans, the river is rather constrained; but elsewhere, northwards to its source near Alençon, it is flanked by beautiful countryside draped with trees and bright in summer with sunflowers. It runs from 250km (155 miles ) from its source in the Orne département to Maine.

The département comprises six separate mini-regions, each with their own characteristics – Pay du Mans lies at the centre; to the east the Pays du Perche Sarthois. Continuing anti-clockwise there is the Pays d’Alençon, la Haute Sarthe, Vallée de la Sarthe and, in the south, the vallée du Loir.

The department has a population in excess of half a million, spread across an area that is largely agricultural. Soft undulating landforms ripple away to the horizons in what must be one of France’s least well-known counties.

Sarthe is south of Normandy and on the southern edge of the Armorican Massif. It is bordered by the departments of Orne, Eure-et-Loir, Loir-et-Cher, Indre-et-Loire, Maine-et-Loire and Mayenne. The capital of the department is Le Mans, famed for its motoring racing, and as the founding place of the Plantagenet Dynasty.

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